Friday, August 22, 2008

Feeding Our Future

Writers: Alice Ross Morta-Hermosa and Diana Jean V. Moraleda


In Sta. Clara de Montefalco Parish, Pasay City, 4-year old Devin John sat on a table and played with a jar of coins collected for the Catholic Church’s Pondo ng Pinoy (PnP) initiative. Devin looks like a typical boy you would find in any neighborhood. He is somewhat shy but his eyes hold a slight glint of playfulness and curiosity. His actions may have been a little hampered by the cautiousness one feels upon meeting a stranger, but they were nevertheless energetic. There is almost no sign that more than six months ago, Devin was among the huge number of children who are malnourished.

The 6th National Nutrition Survey shows that 30.6 percent of children aged ten and below are underweight and 31.4 percent are under-height. This indicates chronic and long-standing malnutrition. In raw numbers, this translates to 7.5 million malnourished children. Of these, 1.5 million are “wasting.” This means that they are either skin and bones or bloated due to infections. It is as if these children have been condemned to die. It is because of this desperate situation that the Hapag-Asa Integrated Nutrition Program was set-up.
A Christian response
The Hapag-Asa Program, of which Devin is a graduate, is the flagship program of Pondo ng Pinoy. It is a medically supervised nutrition program that aims to alleviate extreme hunger among poor Filipino children and to improve their overall health condition. The spirit that will sustain the program is hoped to be the same kind of spirit that made possible the multiplication of the loaves and fishes during Jesus’ time. According to Scottish scholar William Barclay: “Jesus took the lead… and thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all… it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ.” Such is the vision of Hapag-Asa. Initiated by philanthropist and former Ambassador Howard Dee, the program calls on the generosity of people who have the smallest amount to share so that poor children from all over the country can live with good health, dignity and hope in their hearts. Dee’s Assisi Development Foundation serves as the overall manager and technical consultant of the program. The Hapag-Asa team, led by Ms. Bell La Fuente, a nutritionist by profession, coordinates program activities with the dioceses and parishes, prepares and keeps track of the budget and maintains the database of beneficiaries.

Hapag-Asa has four major components: supplemental feeding program, education, spiritual formation and livelihood. Under supplemental feeding, a total of 120,000 children is sought to be salvaged from malnutrition and health-related illnesses between 2005 and 2007. Of these, 32,000 will be fed from Pondo ng Pinoy resources. Assisi projects that at least PhP38.1 million will be required to feed 31,800 children from June 2006 to December 2007. Financial means to nourish the rest of the target group will come from the Assisi Foundation, mass collections from Ayala malls and selected parishes in affluent communities and some counterpart from participating groups.

To encourage support from potential donors, different strategies have been employed. For instance, a short film prepared by the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) on the plight of poor children and the kind of help that Hapag-Asa can give them was shown to rich parishioners after each mass. This proved to be a good approach; Hapag-Asa was able to bring in about PhP10 million in just four months. A nationwide fund-raising campaign was likewise sponsored by the PDI. Although not as favorable as hoped, the print ad campaign still managed to add PhP500,000 to the program treasury. Another big source of funds, former Ambassador Dee fondly related, was when two of his friends volunteered to help by accepting cash donations for Hapag-Asa instead of gifts for their 60th wedding anniversary party. On that one night alone, Hapag-Asa collected a total of PhP1.35 million.
At the moment, 13 member-dioceses of Pondo ng Pinoy are implementing on-site supplemental feeding activities. These are the Archdiocese of Manila and the Dioceses of Kalookan, Pasig, Novaliches, Cubao, Daet, Para├▒aque, San Pablo, Antipolo, Imus, Puerto Princessa, Taytay and Malolos. From the five parishes which led Hapag-Asa’s commencement on January 2005, the program has widened its reach to include some 5,790 children from 85 parishes in these member-dioceses. Pondo ng Pinoy contributes from PhP4,875 to PhP15,525 to each parish monthly to feed between 50 and 100 children. As counterpart, these parishes shoulder the cost of items like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), transportation going to and from the market, utensils, kitchen equipment and documentation. Another group of 29,000 children is being served by the program from the 25 dioceses which are not part of Pondo ng Pinoy. But the good news is that this is not solely a Church matter; other sectors have also been inspired to take on the cause. Different nongovernment organizations (NGOs), foundations and local government units (LGUs) have pledged to feed 65,500 kids within 2006.
Parishes that wish to implement the Hapag-Asa program in their areas are required to organize and send for training a Parish Action Team (PAT). The six-member PAT is responsible for food preparation, nutritional assessment, and education and support services. It also selects the children who are qualified for feeding and mobilize parish volunteers for actual feeding and other related activities. Children who are between three and 12 years old (considered as the critical stages of development) and suffering from moderate or severe malnutrition are eligible for enrolment in the program. Once a day for five days a week, they are fed on-site in participating parishes. Meals come in the form of viand and rice or heavy snacks like soup or spaghetti. This continues for six months per batch. Religion or religious affiliation is not an issue for enrolment.

To date, the program has done very well. Eighty percent of the 920 children who have graduated from the program had significant weight increases and improved physical conditions. Even skin diseases are healed in just a month. The secret is in the so-called VitaMeal, a mixture of lentils, rice, soy and powdered vegetable, which is added to the food. VitaMeal is rich in minerals, vitamins and proteins. Each parish receives one to seven VitaMeal bags for six months. One bag makes 250 meals. VitaMeal bags which cost PhP1,280 pesos each were supplied by Nourish the Children International (U.S.A.) and Assisi foundation only had to pay one-tenth of the actual cost.

Holistic development

Hapag-Asa emphasizes that on-site feeding is meant only to supplement the meals given at home. Yet sadly, because of severe poverty, some of the children depend entirely on Hapag-Asa to be able to eat. This hinders the recovery of about 20 percent of enrollees in the program, particularly those who are sick with primary complex.

Dee explained that, at first, Assisi did not want to launch into a feeding program precisely because it is a bottomless pit. Feeding programs are sometimes frowned upon by social development circles around the world because they are thought to create too much dependency on people outside the family. However, Dee stressed that 7.5 million children who can be considered the living dead is a blatant appeal to our Christianity. Something has to be done. The foremost goal is, of course, to save malnourished children from death by hunger and malnutrition. But just as crucial is to improve the holistic development of the children and their families and to spread the Good News of God.

To meet these goals, children are taught how to pray and to read through story telling done by volunteers during on-site feeding. Furthermore, mothers’ classes are given to empower women and institute behavioral change necessary in improving family life. Support groups like Caritas Manila and the Pope John Paul II Center for Natural Family Planning open up opportunities for mothers through trainings in livelihood and responsible parenthood. The livelihood skills of mothers are developed so that they can generate income from candle-making, small-scale businesses, and service-related jobs like giving skills on doing a manicure and pedicure. The program also requests a small counterpart from the families of beneficiaries, either in cash (even PhP2 is enough) or in kind (pay for transportation or bring their own plates and utensils). This way, the idea of dole-outs is not instilled and parents develop a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their own children.

At the end of the six months, graduates of the program do not only show an increase in weight but they also show better dispositions. They become more focused, outgoing and affectionate. Lina Laralochea, Hapag-Asa coordinator in Sta. Clara Parish shared, “Hindi na sila nahihiya na magsalita kung ano ang problema nila. Kaya mahal ko itong Hapag-Asa kasi lahat dito parang miracle yung lumabas. Yung mga bata natutong mag-Amen, natutong mag-hug, mag-kiss. Nakita ng mga magulang nila na mahal sila. Ngayon, pati yung mga nanay at tatay hindi na nahihiyang magsalita na mahal nila ang anak nila (They are no longer embarrassed to talk about their problems. That’s why I love Hapag-Asa. Everything seems to be a miracle. The children learned how to say Amen. They learned how to hug and kiss. The parents realized that their children love them. Now, even the parents are not hesitant to show love to their children).” La Fuente agreed and said that at the start of the program, the children are usually spaced out and seemed very distracted. Now, they are livelier and more engaged in life.

Indeed, Hapag-Asa upholds the dignity of the children by getting them out of subhuman situations. Also, it brings dignity to the volunteers. In extending their help, they give more of themselves and thus become more human. La Fuente said that she has been witness to numerous conversions. Volunteers are fired up because they see miraculous changes in the children. She herself draws strength from other people’s experiences. It seems that the program makes recipients and providers alike better Christians.

Whether the children who have graduated from the program will revert to being malnourished or not is hardly in the hands of the program implementers any longer. It can be only hoped that the education, spiritual formation and livelihood components helped instill among families correct eating practices and provided more opportunities for financial self-improvement.

Towards becoming a true faith community

Although a considerable lot has been accomplished by Hapag-Asa, former Ambassador Dee pointed out that what they have accomplished is still very small. To be able to eradicate malnutrition the target of 120,000 children per two years should grow exponentially. What needs to be done is to increase consciousness about the situation. He cited the Leyte landslide tragedy and how Filipinos were able to come together and help because the knowledge of 1,800 people buried alive spoke to them through the mass media. Malnutrition is no different thing, Dee said. In fact, “wasting” children live their lives as if they were dead. More efforts should be done to let people know of the plight of malnourished children and how they can help.

The next necessary step is to gather as many people as possible. Assisi foundation contacted 100 parishes nationwide to offer technical assistance and bags of VitaMeal provided they set up a program of their own. However, only 25 responded. To get the commitment of these parishes as well as parish groups such as the Catholic Women’s League, Ladies of Charity, Legion of Mary and other charismatic groups will help significantly in decreasing malnutrition rates in the country. “Faith has to be shared and translated into action,” Dee said. It is important to strengthen faith but it is more important to bear witness to our faith.

There are many obstacles but the idea is not to be discouraged by the enormity of the task, Dee opined. “Be encouraged by the happy faces of these children who are no longer starving, and see Jesus in them,” he advised those involved in the program, “that’s Jesus smiling at you and thanking you.”

Dee cited Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.” Echoing what Cardinal Rosales once said to him, Dee concluded that we are still far from being a true faith community. We, the Church, have to keep on loving through acts of charity. “Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility of each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility of the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the universal Church in its entirety.” Hapag-Asa is one way for the faithful to build a true Christian community by loving one another especially the poor.

***

Six cups of coffee can save the life of the child. Donations to the Hapag-Asa Program are accepted at the following banks: Bank of the Philippine Islands (3061-0858-22), Banco de Oro (228010364), Chinabank (103-57972-19), Equitable-PCI (0115-04248-3), Metrobank 175-7175-50963-8), and Security Bank (141-026133-022).

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